The Universal Notebook: 'Knowingly being present' rules are unfair

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The most obvious and important thing to know about the 26-page “Evaluation of the Matter Involving the Suspensions and Revoking of Suspensions of Students by the Westbrook School Department Administration” is that no students were interviewed during the independent investigation of how school officials handled the matter of some 30 student-athletes allegedly being present at an off-campus party.

That doesn’t surprise me. Students have few rights in school discipline situations and the student perspective is often missing from deliberations about extra-curricular codes.

When it comes to code violations, due process flies right out the window. Students are expected to incriminate themselves. Parents are expected to rat on their children. Standards of proof that would never stand up in a court of law are considered conclusive. Show me a Facebook picture of a kid holding a can of Budweiser and you ought to have to prove that there was a beer in it and that the student was drinking it. Otherwise, the picture could have been taken at a bottle drive.

Then there is the blanket condemnation of the Draconian guilt-by-association rules many schools have adopted so that they don’t have to prove anything except that a student was somewhere that others were breaking the rules.

“The Policy,” wrote investigator John Alfano in his report on the Westbrook High situation, “is nearly impossible to enforce, because the standard, ‘knowingly being present,’ requires proof too high to be established by normal school investigations conducted by administrators.”

In other words, principals and athletic directors are not police officers, nor should they be.

The “knowingly being present” dragnet effectively prohibits students from ever attending parties, because there are rarely if ever parties at which someone is not drinking or smoking. Fortunately, as Alfano suggests, enforcing that impossible standard requires a principal to establish both that students were at a party and knew that others were drinking or smoking even if they were not. The only way to do that is to force a student to testify against himself or herself. You might just as well make it a violation of the athletic code not to report a teammate’s violation.

The real problem with athletic codes that try to cover every possible way a student might engage in behavior unacceptable to school officials is that what students do on their own time away from school is really no business of school teachers or administrators. I mean that in all seriousness and with all due respect. The job of an educator is to educate, not investigate and adjudicate.

Oh, I can hear the moralizing hens clucking now.

“We have to teach them a lesson. Students have to learn that there are consequences for their actions.” And there are, you old biddies. The consequences of underage drinking can be legal, financial and health-related. But there is no reason at all why they should be educational or athletic.

Boothbay Region High School just threw away its chance of a state championship by suspending six basketball players for “knowingly being present.” That’ll teach ’em. Right? Wrong. What an awful and unnecessary thing to do to players and fans. But that’s the disciplinarian mindset for you: just punish everybody.

Nothing undermines respect for authority faster than the unfair use of it. Telling athletes that they cannot compete in the big game because someone said they were at a party where someone else may have been drinking is obviously not fair. It’s authoritarian nonsense that belongs in a dictatorship not a democracy. Ultimately, the Westbrook High athletic director got it right when he revoked suspensions based on this unjust, unethical and unenforceable standard.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.